Friday 17 November 2017

The bad day at Blackrock for Mary and Kate

Philip Ryan looks at how the fiasco of Fianna Fail and the two non-running mates unfolded

Kate Feeney on the streets of Blackrock, Co Dublin. Picture: GERRY MOONEY.
Kate Feeney on the streets of Blackrock, Co Dublin. Picture: GERRY MOONEY.
Mary Hanafin . Picture: Gerry Mooney
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

KATE Feeney was knocking on doors with her campaign team when she got the call from Fianna Fail headquarters on Friday, May 2.

The local election candidate was taken aback when the senior official told her the party was considering putting forward two candidates in her constituency in Blackrock/ Dun Laoghaire, South Dublin.

With less than 24 hours to go before the nomination deadline, she was told former minister Mary Hanafin would be her running mate in a constituency where the party currently has no representative.

Feeney was adamant in her objections to the move and insisted there was no chance the party could secure two seats in the constituency.

The 28-year-old first-time candidate ended the call and prepared for a political dog-fight with a seasoned political opponent.

The political drama that unfolded in the following days read like a script from the hit US television show House of Cards.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent last week, Kate Feeney said: "It's nerve wracking to be a candidate and particularly a first-time candidate. The national attention on Blackrock has increased those nerves."

The Ogra Fianna Fail president had an uphill battle getting her name on the ballot paper long before she locked horns with the former education minister.

Ironically, she was parachuted on to the ticket as a second candidate to contest the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council elections in the Blackrock Ward after she failed to get elected at a selection convention last October.

Her former running mate, Barry Conway, was forced to withdraw from the race due to work commitments in January and it was decided to stick with one candidate.

Everything was going as planned and Kate Feeney looked like she was set to follow her mother Geraldine's footsteps into the world of politics.

But rumours were circulating that former minister Hanafin was eyeing a return to politics, which would mean returning to her stomping ground in Blackrock.

In sporadic media interviews since she left office, Hanafin made no secret of her ambition to return to politics after the electorate turned their back on Fianna Fail at the last general election.

She was heavily tipped to make a move for the European election ticket but when it came to selection, her name was not put forward.

However, there was an understanding among local Fianna Fail members that the party's candidate for the next general election should first successfully contest the local election.

If Mary Hanafin won a council seat, it would be seen as purging the past and she would be likely selected to run in 2016 on the national stage.

The former education minister last week insisted that she only considered nomination when she was approached by Fianna Fail.

However, sources close to Fianna Fail's national executive constituency selection committee claim she made a number of approaches about putting her name in the hat for the local election.

"She has indicated since the Ard Fheis and before that, that she was interested in running in the locals," a well-placed source said.

Mary Hanafin claimed the first contact she had on the issue was a text message from Fianna Fail general secretary Sean Dorgan asking to meet for a cup of coffee on Friday, April 25.

"I presumed he wanted me to go out and gather up some people for canvassing," she told the Sunday Independent.

She had to turn him down because she was flying to Rome that weekend with her mother to see the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

They arranged to meet the following Wednesday, at which meeting Hanafin said she was shown research that indicated she should run.

The Sunday Independent has been told by Fianna Fail sources that the most recent political research had Hanafin on 12 per cent and Feeney on nine per cent – if both were on the ballot paper.

A poll carried out a month earlier had Feeney on eight per cent and it was hoped that with the former minister on board as well, the party could get two Fianna Fail candidates over the line in the six-seat constituency.

A source close to Mary Hanafin said these figure were "wide off the mark" compared to what she was shown and in fact Kate Feeney polled far lower.

"They wouldn't have asked Mary to join the ticket on those figures and she wouldn't have accepted," the source said

At the meeting with the party general secretary, Mary Hanafin said her father was sick in hospital and she would like time, at least overnight, to consider the prospect of returning to politics.

Sean Dorgan agreed to that request.

The following day she accepted the nomination and was given the relevant paperwork needed to register as a candidate.

She claimed campaign literature was being printed and all that was left to do was tell Kate Feeney that she had a running mate.

"I'm the one who told them 'you must tell Kate and show her the evidence that it's in everyone's best interests'," she said.

Despite telling her she was on the ticket, a source close to the selection process said discussions between officials and Mary Hanafin in party headquarters "set off alarm bells".

"There were concerns on Thursday and Friday that we were just replacing one candidate with another," a source said.

"It seemed like she was not going to play ball to get a second seat beside Kate. The agenda wasn't to replace another candidate – it was to win two seats."

The next day, in the mid-afternoon, Mary Hanafin took a call from party leader Micheal Martin who asked her if she was okay to run. She said she was anxious due to her father's ill-health but would run nonetheless.

By that evening, she was getting phone calls from national newspapers asking if she was running in the local elections.

Hanafin claimed she did not return the calls.

At the same time, the Fianna Fail selection committee was meeting to discuss her nomination and decided, in hindsight, that it was not a good idea.

Mary Hanafin was informed at around 10.30pm that night that the party did not want her to run, but she felt this was the wrong decision given what she had been told two days earlier.

Kate Feeney was relieved when headquarters told her around the same time that she would now be the only candidate running in the area.

However, on Saturday morning, Kate Feeney read on Twitter that Mary Hanafin was planning to hand in her nomination papers.

She immediately rang headquarters, demanding to know what was happening.

She was assured that this was not the case as Mary Hanafin had been told she was not a candidate the previous night.

The same newspapers, to which Hanafin said she had not spoken, ran stories in their Saturday editions claiming she was running.

The deadline for nomination was Saturday midday and Mary Hanafin made sure her nomination papers were lodged with Dun Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council on time.

The veteran politician, who had been out of politics for three years, immediately reverted to election mode. She began ringing media organisations offering to tell her side of the story and insisted she was not involved in a "dirty tricks" campaign to ruin Kate Feeney's chances of election.

It seemed she wanted to get her story out while party headquarters were still dazed by the audacity of her defiance.

At 6pm on Saturday, the party did eventually react and issued a statement that said Mary Hanafin had been told "in the clearest terms" that she would not be a candidate.

Kate Feeney told the Sunday Independent around the same time that she believed her party colleague had made an error in registering as a candidate.

It was too late. Hanafin's mind was set on returning to cut-and-thrust of an election campaign.

News of the fiasco continued into Sunday and questions started to be asked about Micheal Martin's handling of the affair.

The mood amongst both local and European election candidates was that Mary Hanafin's re-entry into politics could detract from their own campaigns.

Hanafin said her party leader called her on Saturday and on Monday, asking her to withdraw.

She refused and in a further show of defiance, took to the airwaves on Tuesday and spoke to Sean O'Rourke on RTE Radio as the deadline loomed for withdrawing from the race.

Despite the damage she was obviously doing to an already battered Fianna Fail, Hanafin claimed she was always a "good party person" and said she was given no reason for pulling out.

The party reacted more speedily on this occasion and said an investigation would be launched into Mary Hanafin's refusal to abide by the decision.

This investigation, which could lead to Hanafin's expulsion from the party, will not take place until well after the local elections.

There is very little chance both candidates will get elected but should Mary Hanafin get elected ahead of Kate Feeney, she may well be welcomed back into the party with open arms.

Sunday Independent

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